Meet Aaron Gordon, the NBA Draft's Truly Elite Defender

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Meet Aaron Gordon, the NBA Draft's Truly Elite Defender
Denis Poroy/Associated Press

Aaron Gordon is more NBA ready than people realize.

The 18-year-old kid from Arizona surely has his weaknesses: He hasn't developed much of a shot, he struggles creating for himself off the dribble, and he hit just 42.2 percent of free throws in his freshman season, his only year as a Wildcat.

But boy, can the kid defend.

As a consensus top-10 recruit coming out of high school, Gordon came into last season figuring that he had the chance to be a one-and-done. Now, he enters the NBA as someone who is expected to be one of the top-10 selections in the draft. 

DraftExpress.com has Gordon at No. 9 on its list of top-100 prospects. ESPN's Chad Ford ranks him No. 7 on his big board. 

On draft day, you always hear the word "range." But when Gordon got asked about his range while speaking to the media the day before the draft, even he seemed as indecisive as anyone.

Denis Poroy/Associated Press

"I think it's four through eight, but I have no idea," he said with a smile.

Unless something goes horribly wrong, Gordon will hear his name called by a team amongst the lottery slots. There is one thing we can be sure of, though: Aaron Gordon is going to be able to guard at the NBA level.

As Arizona's best and most versatile defender, Gordon had to check the other team's best offensive threat on most nights during his brief college tenure. That's how he ended up facing more isolation than any other player in the Pac-12 this past season, according to Synergy Sports (subscription required).

But even against that top-notch competition on a gamely basis, Gordon dominated. No one stood a chance.

Back in November, we actually saw the country's most refined offensive player in Jabari Parker go up against Gordon, who guarded the Duke forward for much of the game.

In that contestwhich may have been Gordon's best all-around performance of the seasonhe stuck with Parker on defense to force a miss, hustled back onto him, caused another clank while contesting Parker at the rim, got the rebound and then made a perfect pass (his distributing skills are highly underrated, by the way) to lead to a fast-break layup:

This play is all about the second effort, something you don't usually see from a freshman defender, especially after bodying up an elite opposing player once already. At one point during the play, Gordon recovers onto Parker on the left side, but Parker gets a step by him:

Courtesy of ESPN and ruethewhirly on YouTube

However, Gordon's quickness and intelligence allows him to catch up to the Duke forward. This is also the Arizona way.

'Zona forwards could play themselves some help defense, but coach Sean Miller made sure you didn't see them searching for blocks this year. That was the job of Kaleb Tarczewski, the seven-foot center in the middle of the D who would sky for swats. The rest of the defense, though, took a more conservative approach.

Miller coaches his players to find a spot, let the opposition move and then catch up to them. If defense is about beating the ball to wherever it is going to be on the court, Miller wants his guys to make defending the ball a priority, not necessarily defending the player.

Because of that, you don't see tons of shot blocks from guys like Brandon Ashley or Gordon, who averaged just 1.3 swats per 40 minutes, which is one of the knocks against him as he enters the draft. But he has the quickness to alter shots, regardless of whether he's touching them or not.

After falling a step behind Parker on his second shot, Gordon shows the foot speed and awareness to jump vertically, avoiding a foul and perfectly contesting the attempt:

Courtesy of ESPN and ruethewhirly on YouTube

How many freshman, or even NBA players, reach forward and foul the shooter in that scenario?

But Gordon doesn't. He's too smart.

Opponents shot just 31.4 percent when they isolated against Gordon this past season, per Synergy. Iso ball-handlers who tried to take on the freshman turned the ball over on a philanthropic 17.8 percent of their plays.

Part of that has to do with the aforementioned rotating of players in Arizona's system. The Wildcats' help defense was as good as anyone else's in the country last year, especially before Ashley found himself out for the year after injuring a ligament in his right foot 22 games into his season.

"It was just different," Gordon says about playing after the Ashley injury. "Before, it was me just shutting down a 3 or switching to the 1 and having Brandon behind us. Once Brandon went down, I switched to the 4 and started guarding 4s and 5s. It just made it less of a defensive mismatch."

Jae C. Hong/Associated Press

We may hear about Gordon's size as a big issuehe measured in at 6'9", 220 pounds at the NBA combine and is projected by many to be a small forward in the prosbut the freshman more than held his own guarding collegiate power forwards and centers. Players guarded by Gordon shot just 37.5 percent in the post this year, per Synergy, which was well below the national average.

Of course, NBA players are bigger. And, of course, they're more skilled. Gordon probably won't be a full-time interior player in the NBA, but let's remember that he's still only 18 years old.

He's still a kid, and kids tend to mature as much physically as they do emotionally. His time guarding on the inside gave him a nice taste of versatility, something that could help him as he puts on a little NBA bulk.

National Defensive Win Shares Leaders, 2013-14
Player School Defensive Win Shares
1. Aaron Gordon Arizona 3.3
2. Aaron Craft Ohio State 3.2
3. Josh Davis San Diego State 3.2
4. Delon Wright Utah 3.2
5. Montrezl Harrell Louisville 3.2

sports-reference.com/cbb

Ashley helped anchor a defense that rotated as close to an NBA defense as any other team in the NCAA this past season. When he went down, Arizonawho finished as the nation's top-ranked team in adjusted defensive efficiency, per KenPom (subscription required)lost most of its chance at a national championship, but the injury could have selfishly helped Gordon, who learned the pick-and-roll from another angle. 

Now, Gordon is elite in defending the screen-and-roll. Synergy says ball-handlers shot just 26.1 percent against him when he guarded them in pick-and-roll situations. When Gordon guarded the roll-man, the screener shot just 20 percent.

Granted, some of those numbers may be slightly skewed. For example, if Gordon is guarding a pick-and-roll ball-handler, it probably means you have a forward facilitating your offense (usually not a good thing). And the roll-man numbers also came without a massive sample size considering the Wildcats didn't see much of the pick-and-roll while playing in the Pac-12.

Tactically, though, defending the pick-and-roll became Gordon's forte. No one in the country could cut off a driving lane and then recover back onto his man quite like Gordon, as evidenced by this side screen-and-roll against Cal in February:

This game came after the Ashley injury, so Gordon was responsible for guarding bigs. Here, he defends Cal's David Kravish, a 6'9" forward who sets a last-second screen for Justin Cobbs, starting a mini pick-and-roll on the left side. But Gordon reads it perfectly, shifting over to cut off Cobbs' driving lane right as Kravish sets the screen:

Courtesy of Pac-12 Network and Reddit CBBuploads on YouTube

Most NCAA defenders don't have the awareness to make this slide so intuitively, especially on a pick-and-roll that involves a quick ball-handler and a shielded, immediate screen. But Gordon reads it perfectly and still shows off the quickness to recover onto Kravish in time to contest his shot without fouling:

Courtesy of Pac-12 Network and Reddit CBBuploads on YouTube

Gordon's contest here isn't all that different in skill from the one he showed on that aforementioned play against Parker. Both were about using a combination of foot speed and the ability to attack the ball without making illegal contact with the shooter. It's something plenty of NBA defenders don't possess, let alone college kids. But Gordon credits plays like this to the team as a whole.

"It's system. It's communication," he explains as the reason he's able to move so confidently as a helper. "It's defense pulling on a string. It's five men guarding one person. It's not one-on-one."

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

Gordon is as much a part of that team defense as anyone else, and that's what may make him one of the most NBA-ready players in this year's draft. But we have created a culture in which we talk about "NBA-ready" mainly in relation to offense.

Can Player X shoot? Does he have a handle? Can he distribute? But prospects can be raw on the defensive end, as well.

That's what we see in a player like Parker, who is so polished on the offensive end but is still learning where to be defensively. It's that offense-prioritizing culture which makes us so surprised when someone like Draymond Green becomes one of the most noteworthy players in a postseason series. 

Playing for a coach like Tom Izzo, Green learned how to defend in the pick-and-roll and how to help properly, but he was a pudgy senior who didn't have as high a ceiling because of his age, so he fell to the beginning of the second round. We're witnessing a similar narrative with Adreian Payne this season.

But Gordon sets himself apart from those players.

Jeff Gross/Getty Images

He may be raw offensively, but he's perfectly cooked on defense. Meanwhile, as an 18-year-old freshman who is one of the best athletes in the draft, Gordon doesn't have the main deterrents Green had. (See: Gordon's 39-inch max vertical as well as dunks like this or this or this to confirm this notion.)

His seven-foot wingspan easily gives him easily length to defend on the outside, and his physicality and smarts pair together amicably enough to give him an interior presence. 

Now, a team seeking a quality defensive forward to bolster its roster will be looking to take him.

Maybe it'll be the Utah Jazz, who own the No. 5 pick and could potentially boast a huge, defensive-minded frontcourt of Gordon, Derrick Favors and Enes Kanter. Or Gordon could possibly land with the Boston Celtics at No. 6 considering how similar Brad Stevens is to Sean Miller schematically. The Philadelphia 76ers could be a nice fit as well, as they could slot him next to a healthy Nerlens Noel to make for a young, exciting front line.

There aren't too many guaranteed defensive guys in this year's draft.

Andrew Wiggins is a defensive-minded player. Marcus Smart can be a bulldog. Joel Embiid will be a rim-protector if he can stay healthy. But aside from Gordon, is that it? 

Look at the rest of the top prospects and you'll find a bunch of players who may turn into defenders as they mature, but they are ones who are offense-first guys right now.

Gordon, though, is already there defensively.

He's the Jabari Parker of defending, and whichever team selects him Thursday night is going to be very happy to slot him into its defense without having to take him through much of a learning process.

 

Fred Katz averaged almost one point per game in fifth grade, but he maintains that his per-36-minute numbers were astonishing. Find more of his work at RotoWire.com, WashingtonPost.com or on ESPN's TrueHoop Network at ClipperBlog.com. Follow him on Twitter: @FredKatz.

All quotes obtained firsthand. Unless otherwise noted, all statistics are current as of June 25 and courtesy of Sports-Reference.com, KenPom.comDraftExpress.com and MySynergySports.com.  

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